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Tash Aw's "Map of the Invisible World"

Is Tash Aw the Malaysian Graham Greene?

by CHARLES R. LARSON

The comparisons between Tash Aw’s Map of the Invisible World and the novels of Graham Greene are not overblown.  International intrigue, expatriates in exotic locales, humanistic and moralistic dilemmas for the major characters—these are some of the signatures of Greene’s work and, now, Aw’s also, including his first novel The Harmony Silk Factory.  I, for one, welcome a contemporary Graham Greene, a writer whose works are sadly overlooked today, at least in academic circles.  Greene was my hero nearly fifty years ago when I lived initially as an expatriate in a non-Western environment.  Like Greene, Aw is also a master at novelistic construction, the multi-layers of human attraction and interaction that bind people together—often complete strangers, frequently from disparate cultures–and, then, too frequently pull them apart.

In Map of the Invisible World, there’s Margaret, an American teaching for many years at a university in Jakarta—single and in her early forties, though she’s had a number of relationships with other expatriates both in Europe and Indonesia.  She’s one of those Westerners who are not comfortable living in the West, people who often drift from country to country during their careers.  She has an Indonesian graduate student, named Din, whom she assumes she is mentoring but, in truth, she doesn’t understand him at all.  Her inability to see beyond the surface—even to understand that Indonesia is on the verge of a political explosion—will have serious consequences for others and certainly refutes the idea of good intentions.

Margaret is not the character we initially encounter when the story opens but is the facilitator, the liaison, even the glue that connects most of the others.  Rather, Aw’s stunning opening begins with Adam, a sixteen-year-old Indonesian, watching his adopted father, Karl, dragged off by Sukarno’s soldiers in 1965, as a purge begins to repatriate the Dutch who settled in Indonesia hundreds of years ago and whose legacy still dominates much of the day-to-day life in this troubled country. 

A major problem is American meddling, intervention under the guise of trying to thwart the spread of Communism during the depths of the Cold War.  And that means that there are other Americans in the story, besides Margaret, of somewhat dubious distinction.  I couldn’t help thinking of Dennis Johnson’s extraordinary novel, Tree of Smoke (2007), chronicling our tragic CIA involvement in Vietnam.  This is only to say that Aw also chronicles Western innocence—the wide-eyed and bushy-tailed Americans who have been responsible for so many ill-fated missions overseas ever since World War II.

A good bit of the story takes place on Independence Day, thirteen years since the initial one (in 1952), when the celebrations in Jakarta  turn into riots against Sukarno—in part because of his plans to annex Malaysia. The remaining Dutch residents are being rounded up and sent back to Holland.  University students (including Margaret’s) are rioting, though students riot so frequently it’s difficult to determine what is the objective of their latest protest—America, Britain, Holland, corrupt politicians, or the ubiquitous slogan Ganyang Malaysia (“crush Malaysia”).

For Adam these are particularly confusing times.  He’s been raised by Karl, so his world outlook is more Western than Indonesian.  On two other occasions he was abandoned: first, when his parents left him and his older brother at an orphanage years ago; and, second, when Johnan, his brother, who adopted by a rich Malaysian family, and Adam was left at the orphanage.  Thus, Adam’s life has been a series of rejections.  He is haunted, especially, by memories of his older brother.  Aw artfully interweaves into his narrative half a dozen sequences told from Johan’s perspective which in many ways is even more painful than Adam’s.  Years afterwards, Johan is still guilt-ridden, almost paralyzed, about the adoption that left Adam, the younger and more vulnerable child, at the orphanage while he was whisked off to a world of affluence.

Aw (who is Malaysian but currently living in London) knows of what he writes.  He’s also a master of narrative form.  The plotting is complex, suspenseful, and full of interesting twists and turns.  You want to rush through the novel to discover what’s going to happen to his multifaceted and fascinating characters.  But that’s no service to this enormously talented writer, who obviously savors every sentence that he writes.  If we’re lucky, he will have a lengthy and productive career like the writer he so much resembles.  I suspect, however, it won’t be long before the comparisons will no longer be necessary.  We’ll simply say that Aw is Aw, standing on his own two feet.

Map of the Invisible World
By Tash Aw
Spiegel & Grau, 318 pp., $25

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.